Thailand isn’t just a major coffee-producing country; it’s also one in which specialty is rapidly on the increase.
Back in 2002, the country produced only 500 tons of Arabica. But today it produces as much as Panama. In 2013, the Good Quality Coffee group was founded – today the Specialty Coffee Association of Thailand (SCATH) – and launched their own green beans awards system. And now the country has specialty coffee shops and roasters dotted around the country.
Of course, there’s still more room for the Thai specialty coffee scene to grow in the future, but the current trend is extremely promising.
So why has Thai specialty coffee bloomed in the last fifteen years? And what are its biggest challenges in the future? Read on to find out.
A coffee farm at Doi Pangkhon, 1250-1500 meters above sea level.
5 Reasons Why Thai Specialty Coffee Is Blooming
There’s no one simple reason why specialty production is on the rise in Thai – instead, it’s a multi-faceted trend with at least five key causes.
1. Specialty Consumers
While rare for an origin country, Thailand has a vibrant local specialty coffee scene with an increasing number of consumers. Baristas and roasters are connected to producers and showing an interest – sometimes even participating! – in the processing of the beans. Certified Q-graders are rising in number. And, as we mentioned earlier, the country now has a national Specialty Coffee Association.
As the consumer side of the Thai specialty coffee scene grows, so does the production side. More attention is being given to improving cherry quality and farming methods. Today, you’ll hear people talk about Thailand’s higher cupping scores and rapidly improved coffee quality.
As Thai specialty consumption grows, so does Thai specialty production.
2. Young and Innovative Farmers
In some producing countries, coffee is the crop of ageing farmers. Not so in Thailand, where most of the farmers we work with are in their late 20s to early 40s. They come from diverse backgrounds – some have bachelor degrees, some have worked in Bangkok and Chiang Mai in the retail or tourism sector. Our highest-elevation farm, in fact, is run by a 24-year-old agricultural science graduate.
I believe this is because coffee in Thailand is an effective cash crop – and, in my opinion, that’s something Thai farming practices benefit from. We see the farmers’ constant drive to improve. Some of them own their own coffee shops in the city and many roast and drink their own coffee. Some are exceedingly receptive to advice and experimentation, with lot and varietal separations, controlled fermentation, and profiled drying.
Young farmers from Doi Pangkhon and Huay Mae Liam in Northern Thailand.
3. Government Support & Training
In the early ‘80s, the Thai government had an even bigger reason to invest in the coffee industry than most governments do: they wanted to rid the Golden Triangle, the region where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet, of its notorious drug trade. To do so, they – along with the Thai royal family – had to provide opium farmers with a profitable replacement crop – and coffee was the perfect option.
Thailand’s success in transforming this region’s drug trade into a booming coffee growing industry is now used as a case study for effective strategies in international development. The government didn’t just try to introduce Arabica coffee production; they supplemented their efforts with research to help farmers.
And so almost every mountain and farming region that I’ve visited has a nearby Thai government or royal research station that works closely with producers, guiding them to use the most effective farming techniques.
With more exposure to international innovation and science in terms of processing techniques, Thailand is poised to become a highly sought-after coffee-growing origin in the specialty world.
A view from a royal research station at Huay Chomphu, which means “Pink Valley”.
4. A Micro Mill Revolution
As of such, small-scale farmers do most of the processing. Many produce just a couple of tons of green beans, and each coffee-farming household has a micro mill that processes the coffee up to the parchment stage. This “micro mill revolution” is akin to the one in Costa Rica, and has the similar effect of many micro mills producing unique coffee that can be tailored to the demands of micro roasters.
A micro mill with ripe red and yellow cherries from Mae Jan Tai and Huay Nam Khun.
5. Good Infrastructure
Good infrastructure is vital for a thriving coffee industry, and fortunately that’s exactly what Thailand has. Green coffee buyers on an origin trip can easily stop by a few different coffee regions in one day, making it easier for them to invest in the growing number of specialty farms.
What’s more, many of these coffee-growing areas are also close to the Thai specialty coffee markets, such as Chiang Mai. This not only reduces the costs of transporting beans, but also means it’s easier for buyers, roasters, and baristas to collaborate with farmers.
A perfectly paved road to Doi Saket, one of Thailand’s oldest coffee-growing regions.
4 Challenges Facing the Thai Specialty Coffee Scene
Yet even though specialty production is rapidly on the increase, there are still challenges to be overcome. Four in particular are holding Thai specialty back.
1. A Competitive Local Market
A competitive domestic market makes the average price of Thai coffee slightly higher than coffee from other low-income origins. With higher minimum wage than most origins, Thailand’s coffee needs to be compared to Costa Rica and Panama. Yet, unlike these elite origins, Thailand is a relatively unknown specialty coffee producing country.
On top of this, domestic forestry conservation laws established to reduce the rate of Thailand’s rapid deforestation make it difficult for large coffee estates with mechanical harvesting to exist in Thailand. As a result, coffee is handpicked by small-scale farmers, creating a relatively high cost of production.
While Thailand’s laws may be increasing the cost of their coffee, they also ensure that buyers and consumers, with every purchase and every cup, are providing sustainable incomes for farmers. This may make Thai coffee less competitive, but the value proposition also fits well with specialty’s drive for more fairness and justice in the supply chain (assuming that the industry is honest to the values that it espouses!)
The cost of labor is higher in Thailand, a blessing and a curse.
2. The World’s Second-Highest Import Tariff
Another threat to the industry is the high import tariffs the government places on foreign coffee. Thailand has the world’s second-highest foreign coffee import tariff after India, at 90% when out of quota. This protectionist policy is a double-edged sword for specialty coffee in the country: it protects farmers by generating a sustainable price but, by reducing competition, slows down the increase in quality and makes it difficult to participate in an international market.
In fact, it means that Thai specialty consumers are practically forced to buy only specialty coffee from their own country – limiting information exchange and exposure to new trends. And, while it doesn’t mean that Thailand is off specialty’s radar, it does mean that the international community is less involved with the country. A challenge for Thai coffee enthusiasts is to explain the critical link between established protectionist laws and sustainable pricing to potential international green buyers, roasters, and consumers.
Thailand has the 2nd highest foreign coffee import tariff in the world after India. Credit: ICO
3. Narrow Research Areas
Earlier we mentioned Thailand’s admirable investment in researching coffee. While this is undeniably accurate, historically that research was directed towards producing rust-resistant and high-yield coffee varieties. For example, the high volume of the Catimor variety, a type of coffee that is genetically manufactured to be rust-resistant and high-yield, is a by-product of the traditional Thai research agenda.
Fortunately, the demand for high-cupping coffees is now changing the nature of Thai coffee production and we believe Thai researchers are beginning to take notice. Yet, after having such a narrow focus for so long, there’s a lot still to do on Thai farms.
Interestingly, we have found in the past three years that most farms, particularly those that are 10+ years old, have other varieties – such as Typica, Bourbon, Caturra, and Catuai – mixed in with the Catimor. This means that if processed the right way, Thai coffee rarely cups like the Catimor the specialty experts have come to expect.
A 40-year old Bourbon withstanding leaf rust.
4. International Attitudes Towards Robusta
Over the past few years, the specialty world has witnessed the emergence of specialty Robusta. This is good news for Thailand, which produces far more Robusta than it does Arabica.
It’s mostly processed through striped harvesting before being dried naturally on concrete floors and sold to multiple instant coffee factories in Thailand. However, a few progressive Robusta farmers in Southern Thailand are experimenting with washed, honey, and natural processing methods. In fact, this year the Specialty Coffee Association of Thailand held a Robusta coffee competition.
A real game changer for Thailand would be the the global specialty coffee industry’s acceptance of specialty Robusta. Not only would it help Thai farmers to thrive, and to further invest in their production methods, but it would also help roasters to achieve desirable taste profiles for their coffee blends.
A Robusta-producing area in Kra Buri District, Ranong Province, in Southern Thailand.
The potential in Thailand, and in fact the whole mainland Southeast Asia, as a specialty coffee-growing origin is tremendous. But they need progressive coffee buyers and roasters to give them a chance.
Written in collaboration with Fuadi Pitsuwan of Beanspire Coffee, a Thai Specialty Coffee Mill and Exporter.
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